Tuesday, 30 June 2009

LGA at Harrogate

The first thing that has struck me is the the dearth of Labour Councillors compared to past years. I remember the time when almost every second person you bumped into a little red spot on their badge. Today they seem more likely to be wearing a tee shirt proclaiming 'I'm backing the Fourth Option-Council Housing'. There is no sight of the young professionals from the South of England who used to make up a large portion of the Labour group. At breakfast I couldn't help but overhear three Labour Councillors from a Met council loudly discussing the agenda. 'Leader, is the Local Government Minister coming?' asked one (deferential these Old Labour people). 'Who the B***** H*** is the Minister this week' was the reply.

By contrast the Lib Dems are in good heart. Nationally we are about neck and neck with Labour for Councillors, but ours are walking tall and not whinging about their parliamentary leaders. At the group meeting Party President Ros Scott was the guest speaker and got a warm reception. The issue of MPs expenses came up and the way the parliamentary party acted. In large measure Lib Dem MPs have behaved pretty well. None have 'flipped houses', none have swapped designation of second homes in order to avoid tax or done any silly stuff around council tax. It follows that none have been taken outside and publicly shot to encourage the others. Nevertheless there was a widespread feeling that more could and should be done. Ros made clear that individual candidates were taking their own initiatives and there was no need for everyone to move at the pace of the slowest. I take this as a green light to take unilateral action and not wait for the House authorities. We all need to get on with it and not behave as if we wish it would go away.

Interestingly Ros made quite a sustained pitch about reviewing the constitutional structures which she described as daunting and of putting for new folk-and by implication biased to 'insiders'. I guess it is pretty hard to win an internal party election unless you are well known outside your own patch. She also felt we needed the capacity to make quicker decisions as many of our process can be 'drawn out'

I was equally interested in her assertion that as she went around the country she discovered a pent up demand for policy discussion. It is clear that she has done a lot of constituency visits. As she spoke she sounded a bit like an enthusiastic Mayor talking about how many engagement she had had-but it was clear that she has made good use of her opportunities to engage with ordinary members as well as enjoying her visits to Liberal International at its annual conference in Vancouver. Anyway she said people had joined a political party and then discovered that they had become members of a club dedicated to leaflet delivery. She has an initiative on the way called 'engage' or some such name designed to meet the demand. I wish her well. As an former member of the Policy committee(ten long year) and chair of a policy panel I always found that there were people in key places in local parties who did not welcome such ideas! I remember one old boy telling me that he had spent all his annual leave at the old Liberal Summer Schools as a young man. They produced acres of the best policy ever to issue out of a British Party but that in the period when the Summer Schools really flourished the electoral performance of the party went down the drain.

Looking forward we have Vince Cable speaking to the conference. As Cllr David Williams observed it will be interesting to compare and contrast his contribution to that of David Cameron who follows him. Vince has been saying some tough things about the pension rights of senior council and health service employees. As Steve Comer- another politician I was an undergraduate with-pointed out most council employees are not the beneficiaries of fat pensions, so it is a challenge not to allow it to be suggested that we are after the pension rights of the low paid. Personally I can't see why the message cannot be got across. I hope that as part of a bigger review of pensions we can come up with some radical suggestions. So many private sector firms are ditching their final salary schemes and that will impact on many people paid less then even council employees.